Patriot Act extension signed into law despite bipartisan resistance in Congress

May 27, 2011

After Congress hurried to pass an extension to the USA Patriot Act on Thursday, President Obama signed the extension into law minutes before the midnight deadline. As Paul Kane and Felicia Somnez reported:

Racing against the clock, Congress approved a four-year extension Thursday to key provisions of the USA Patriot Act that will allow federal investigators to continue to use aggressive surveillance tactics in connection with suspected terrorists.

Overcoming objections from a bipartisan clutch of libertarian-minded lawmakers, the legislation passed the Senate, 72 to 23, and the House, 250 to 153.

The provisions were due to expire at midnight Thursday without an extension. President Obama is attending a summit in France, but the bill was signed by autopen with his authorization moments before the deadline, the White House said.

“I think it is an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat,” Obama said Friday, after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some supporters had warned that any interruption in the law could have dire consequences for national security, while opponents demanded more time to debate the need for such provisions almost 10 years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Several Democratic senators raised objections during the Patriot Act extension debate as to the Department of Justice’s interpretation of the information collection provisions in the bill. As AP explained:

Four Democratic senators won the promise Thursday of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing into what they say is a secret and expansive Justice Department interpretation of the information collection the Patriot Act allows.

The criticism by Intelligence Committee members Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado came as Congress moved to extend the government’s Patriot Act powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps.

Wyden said there is a growing gap between what the law says and what the senators call a classified interpretation of the law by the Justice Department.

Udall said his constituents “would be alarmed if they knew” how the Patriot Act was being carried out.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon complained that “the government won’t even tell the American people how it interprets these provisions, or whether it sees any limits on its authority at all.” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said almost 10 years after the Patriot Act’s passage, “we still haven’t had the debate that we need to have on this piece of legislation.” All four senators voted against the Patriot Act extension. Merkley and Tom Udall are not on the intelligence committee.

Senator Rand Paul won a small battle with his opposition to the Patriot Act by reaching a deal with Congressional leadership to add votes on two amendments, one of which would exempt some gun records from government searches. As Felicia Somnez reported:

That was the score late Thursday afternoon following Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) announcement that after days of grueling debate over the renewal of three key Patriot Act provisions, Senate leaders had reached a deal on allowing votes on two amendments proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Under the agreement, announced less than nine hours before the law currently extending the Patriot Act provisions was to expire, the Senate would vote on two amendments proposed by Paul: one that would limit “suspicious activity” reporting requirements under the Act to requests from law enforcement agencies, and another – the one that had seen the greatest opposition from Reid – that would exempt certain gun records from being searched under the counterterrorism surveillance law.

The victory for Paul wasn’t so much that either of his amendments would pass — in fact, both fell well short of the 60-vote threshold necessary for approval, with the gun-rights amendment receiving the support of only 10 senators.

Rather, it was that after days of vowing to block the passage of the Patriot Act extension — even at the risk of missing Thursday’s deadline — Paul, a tea-party freshman who has served in the Senate for less than five months, was granted votes on his two amendments.

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